April 13, 2017

Snapshot on Sustainability – Defining Resilience

By Stacy Sinclair

Last week focused on the need for a language decoder ring to help us determine whether sustainability is a concept, a framework, or a movement. This week we tackle the term resilience.

Look in the dictionary and there are a variety of definitions of the word. Even more so, the synonyms: elastic, springy, flexible, supple, buoyant, irrepressible, tough, hardy and strong, all connote a state that returns to the status quo. I propose that after a natural event or personal tragedy, the landscape is different. It may never return to exactly how it was. Based on the discussions I’ve been having, I believe resilience includes handling that which changes permanently, looking at what comes out the other side of a process as a ‘better sausage’.

In reviewing my notes from over 50 conversations since January, I’ve found there’s usually a moment in the conversation when I finally know what we’re talking about. At first I thought it was me not listening carefully, but I ran across two articles, one in the Public Library of Science (PLOS) and the other in Landscape and Urban Planning. There is a problem and it’s bigger than my personal experience.

You know it’s bad when researchers publish research about the lack of a cohesive definition for a term that we all think we know. It’s like living with a shape-shifter; we’re confused or we think others are. How do we have meaningful conversations about resilience when what we’re talking about keeps changing? This is when vocabulary becomes a barrier – a filter or a wall, each keeping people out of the conversation. Those who are left in the conversation are typically those who think and see the world similarly. Things get insular. Solutions narrow. To grow a resilient community, we need diversity of thought and experience represented in the conversation.

This reminds me of when I did my dissertation on school libraries. Everyone loved libraries and no one could figure out why they weren’t getting funding. Yet, all the articles about the benefits of libraries were in journals read by … you guessed it, librarians. Where do you look? People tell me they turn to their friends and colleagues. Are we always drinking from the same well? What happens when we run out of fresh ideas there to drink? How can we replenish them?

According to the literature, definitions of resilience look more like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs than a construct to build community. Resilience might be a concept, a continuum or approach that spans from preventing disruption, to withstanding an isolated event, to a community benefitting from how an event was handled. There are timeframes to consider from the immediate to long-term outcomes. Adaptation versus general adaptability. It might be better to think about resilience as a graph or matrix that puts time on one axis, adaptability on another and resilience as a trait – within a person, an organization, held by a community or spanning a greater geographic radius on one more axis. A Harvard Business Review article on resilience talks about having a “resilience reserve.” They weren’t talking about a budget reserve, but a human capacity to draw from. Reserves can empty. I’m imagining how to fill a reserve for someone who is tapped out – a powerful image that leaves me deflated.

I believe that the definition around resilience will coalesce. The USGBC-LA Chapter has been doing a lot of work in the area – and it is getting noticed. The Building Resilience Los Angeles: A Primer for Facilities is a good place to start. BRLA defines resilience as “the capacity to survive and thrive in the face of stressors and shocks,” which aligns to a number of other organizations’ definitions. So, we’re getting there. So much has to do with context.


Before we have to respond to an event that occurs, what about planning for a probable future? We can fight our inclination to hold off and do nothing, to wait for direction or regulation. We know the stressors and shocks that we are likely to encounter and we can put preventative measures in place at a system level. Rather than thinking of cities as the source of problems, they can be the solution. They are engines of change and hubs of innovation. Creating change takes courage, but we can redesign the future.

Resilience can be a framework for a thriving community. First, we need to envision the community we want to be a part of. More on that later. Yet, once we can see that vision, we can plan for it. We can determine those elements of the built, unbuilt, and technological environment that need nurturing and those that provide nurturing.

Please join the conversation by contacting me directly at stacy.sinclair@me.com or leaving your thoughts here.

Thank you to those whose ideas, innovations and unique perspectives are captured above:

* Cassy Aoyagi, FormLA Landscaping

* Chris Forney, Brightworks Sustainability

* Chris Garvin, Tarrapin Bright Green

* Daniele Horton, Verdani Partners

* Eric Corey Freed, EcoDistricts

* Evan Marks, The Ecology Center

* George Bandy, Mohawk

* Mikhail Chester (UCLA conference)

* Heather Rosenberg, USGBC-LA

* Heidi Creighton, Buro Happold

* Joel Ann Todd, HPD Collaborative

* Michelle Romolini, LMU – Center for Urban Resilience

* Sara Neff, Kilroy Realty Corporation

* Stephanie Pinceti, University of California, Los Angeles

* Susan Kaplan, BuildingWrx

Stacy Sinclair is an accomplished educator and author. She is partnering with USGBC-LA to explore perspectives that drive decision-making on issues related to sustainability and resilience.

4 thoughts on “Snapshot on Sustainability – Defining Resilience”

  1. Hi Stacy,

    So true, resiliency is a word we encounter regularly yet it can be defined differently by different people, different industries, different situations. It will unify soon and we will be here to provide assistance.

  2. Thank you for the excellent article, Stacy!

    This thread of thinking about word choice and how we communicate concepts within the sustainability realm has always piqued my interest. I love and relate to the perspective you’re writing from. To me, initially, resilience seemed like the climate change thinker’s, shaker’s, and mover’s new “buzz word” that they hadn’t quite figured out yet, but wanted to use because “mitigation” and “adaptation” had been a part of the landscape for a while. To me, the mitigation planning phase attempts to minimize or avoid exacerbating the problem, the adaptation planning phase admits that problems will still occur and create a synergistic work around of the problem in advance, and then resiliency feels more like growing-from-learning-from process, as in “Ok, what have we learned, and what can we do better because these problems are going to keep happening”. I still haven’t quite worked out the nuances between adaptation and resilience, but I then had a conversation with a colleague who shared a great article from Science Direct entitled “Resilience vs. Adaptation: Framing and action.” The article states, “‘Resilience’ is a trait, reflecting a general ability to master challenges, whereas ‘Adaptation’ is a state, reflecting how individuals deal with specific stressors” (Wong-Parodi, Gabrielle, et al.). Your blog post awakened a reflection on my bus ride home, so thank you!

  3. Can I just say what a comfort to uncover somebody who truly understands what they are talking about on the net. You actually know how to bring an issue to light and make it important. More and more people need to read this and understand this side of your story. I was surprised you’re not more popular since you surely possess the gift.

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